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BBC World Service to air latest season of Amazing Sport Stories

BBC World Service’s latest season of Amazing Sport Stories Copper Bullets tells the story of the deadly plane crash that killed the Zambian men’s national football team in 1993, and how the country rallied together in its aftermath

Former professional footballer Robert Earnshaw presents the four-part series

In a new four-part season of Amazing Sports Stories, we hear the tragic story of the plane crash that took the lives of the Zambian men’s national football team in 1993, at the peak of their success.

Presenter and former international footballer Robert Earnshaw sets out on a journey to learn more about this extraordinary story.

Zambia excelled at the 1988 Olympics, bursting onto the global football stage with an exceptionally talented generation of players. The team was a point of pride for the whole nation and by 1993 they were in a great position to qualify for the World Cup for the first time ever.

However, the nation’s dreams were shattered when the plane carrying the team – nicknamed the KKXI after the Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda – crashed in Gabon in 1993.

The tragedy broke the nation’s hearts and had a devastating impact on the families of the crash victims. But the Zambian people were defiant, and a new team was assembled to continue the World Cup dream and compete in the Africa Cup of Nations, the biggest football tournament in Africa.

Incredibly, this new, hastily assembled team went much, much further than anyone could have possibly imagined.

In this new instalment of Amazing Sports Stories, Robert speaks to players and managers, obtaining first-hand accounts of the dramatic story of the World Cup qualifying campaign and Africa Cup of Nations in 1994.

Robert Earnshaw, says: “This story is tragic, romantic, powerful, and simply one of the most fascinating football stories of all time. While narrating the story, I was especially moved given that as a football player I travelled on flights internationally the same as ‘The Copper Bullets’ (The Zambia Football Team), and it’s incredible that some of my family were supposed to be on that plane.”

Born in Zambia and raised in South Wales, Robert Earnshaw made his international debut for Wales in 2002, later playing for the Premier League.

Along the way, we hear from ex-footballers, journalists, football fans, academics and ordinary Zambian citizens.

The first episode of Copper Bullets will be available as a podcast on BBC Sounds on Monday 10 June and more widely available on other podcast platforms from Monday 17 June. Episodes will be released weekly. Copper Bullets will air weekly on BBC World Service radio from Saturday 13 July.

Copper Bullets is produced by Richard Power and George Hodkinson. It is a 7digital Production for the BBC World Service.

Amazing Sport Stories is the BBC World Service podcast about sport but not as you know it. There are other podcasts about champions, team news and millionaire superstars – this one is about courage, rulebreakers and expecting the unexpected. We’ve searched the world for these tales which are told in mini-seasons and short stories.

Previous mini-seasons have included the stories of the “Black 14”, a group of 14 American football players who were kicked off their university team in Wyoming in 1969 for wanting to protest against racism at another university. Frozen Out is the story of a 12-year-old girl from Canada who just wanted to play ice hockey with the boys – when she was told she couldn’t, she turned from the ice rink to the court, transforming a sporting fight into a legal battle. Chasing Mountains follows five mountaineers risking their lives in some of the harshest environments on earth, trying to become the first woman to reach the summits of the 14 highest mountains in the world.

Series programme information:

Episode 1

Robert Earnshaw sets the scene for this incredible story. He visits his Zambian mother Rita in south Wales to understand just how important Zambia’s team of the late 1980s and early 1990s – nicknamed the KKXI after Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda – was for the country.

We hear from family members of the KKXI team, including Bwalya and Chewe Chitalu, the daughters of the team’s manager Godfrey Chitalu, and Joyce Chabala, the wife of goalkeeper Efford Chabala. They explain how proud they were to represent their country at the Olympics in 1988, and their excitement at the prospect of potentially becoming the first Zambian team to play at the World Cup, which was due to take place in the US in 1994.

The excitement builds throughout the episode as the team goes from strength to strength. Football writer Ponga Liwewe explains how the KKXI became one of the most feared teams in Africa and even began to make their mark on the global stage.

Anthropologist Patience Mususa helps us understand some of the economic problems in Zambia in the 1980s and 90s, and how this affected the KKXI, including what planes the team were able to fly on. Despite these funding issues, the team continued to enjoy success on the pitch – until 27th April 1993, when the team set off for an away match in Senegal…

Episode 2

On April 27th 1993, the plane carrying the Zambian men’s football team crashed just off the coast of Gabon in West Africa, killing all 30 people on board, including 18 footballers. This immensely talented group of players – known as the KKXI – were on the brink of becoming the first Zambian team to qualify for a World Cup and carried the hopes and dreams of the nation.

Robert Earnshaw uncovers the devastating impact of this disaster, known as the ‘Gabon Tragedy’. He starts by visiting his mum Rita, who as an avid Zambian football fan, remembers it all too well. We hear from family members of the crash victims, including Chewe and Bwalya Chitalu, the daughters of manager Godfrey Chitalu, as well as Joyce Chabala, the wife of goalkeeper Efford Chabala. They recall their emotional devastation when the news first broke, and how their lives since have been turned upside down, with families separated and finances stretched to the limit.

Robert explores why the victims’ families weren’t given adequate compensation, why a detailed report of the crash has never been released and why the team was on such an unsafe plane in the first place – especially after the players had previously expressed concerns. Disputes over the cause of the crash and the handling of its aftermath led to a rapid decline in diplomatic relations between Zambia and Gabon.

Football writer Ponga Liwewe and Zambia superfan Melody Mwala recollect the sheer devastation across the country and how everyone came together to mourn their heroes at a huge memorial service. We hear from Ponga at the memorial site in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, as he reflects on the tragedy 30 years later.

Patrick Kangwa, who at the time was one of the leading figures at the Zambian Football Association, offers a fascinating insight. His football-based decisions regarding which players should be on the ill-fated flight still live with him to this day. Patrick also reflects on his harrowing visit to Gabon to identify and collect the bodies of the deceased players.

Beyond the far-reaching personal and emotional impact, the Gabon Tragedy appeared to leave Zambia’s World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations dreams in tatters. But the episode ends with a glimmer of hope, as a new team began to form which would carry the KKXI’s legacy further than anyone could have imagined…

Episode 3

Robert Earnshaw reveals the incredible story of how Zambian football was resurrected after the 1993 Gabon Tragedy. We start at the Independence Stadium in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. Sitting in the stands, Evans Sakala speaks about being called up to the team as a young footballer with no previous experience as an international player. He and his new teammates were hastily assembled from across Zambia and suddenly thrust into the limelight.

The new team traveled to Denmark to begin training as a team, with the help of esteemed coach Roald Poulsen. They experienced a real culture shock, not least with the cold Danish weather. Roald Poulsen and Evans Sakala explain how this disparate group of players began to gel together into a team, and were given a boost when their captain and talisman Kalusha Bwalya – who was not on the fateful flight – decided to join them. Incidentally, Kalusha is Robert Earnshaw’s cousin, and Robert and his mum discuss how important Kalusha was for the team and reminisce on growing up together.

Upon returning to Zambia, the team was greeted with sheer euphoria wherever they went, with the whole country willing them on. This reached a climax when they played their first match, against Morocco at the Independence Stadium. After going 1-0 down, the crowd appealed to their fallen heroes in the cemetery next door. The team responded and ended up winning 2-1, keeping the World Cup dream alive.

In 1994, the team had one more challenge – the African Cup of Nations, the biggest football tournament in Africa. Players Evans Sakala and Kenneth Malitoli talk us through their emotions as the team defied all odds to reach the final – an unbelievable achievement for this newly assembled side. Zambia were one game away from creating history.

Episode 4

Robert Earnshaw continues the buildup to the historic 1994 Africa Cup of Nations final against Nigeria, as Zambia bid to win the tournament for the first time ever, less than a year after the plane crash which killed nearly their entire team. We hear from football writer Ponga Liwewe and Zambian superfan Melody Mwala as the atmosphere across the country reaches fever pitch. Players Kenneth Malitoli and Evans Sakala take us inside the team camp as they carry out their final preparations and take to the field in front of a global audience of millions.

Robert Earnshaw conveys all the drama as the big game unfolds, and we hear from players, journalists and fans. Following the final, we get a sense of the euphoria that greeted the team as they returned to Zambia.

We then fast-forward 18 years to 2012, as Zambia once again prepares for an Africa Cup of Nations final. Incredibly, this final is set to take place in Libreville in Gabon, just a few hundred metres from the site of the 1993 plane crash. By 2012, Zambia had an entirely new team and had faded on the international football scene – which made their run to the final all the more remarkable and unexpected.

We hear from Zambia’s captain Christopher Katongo and manager Hervé Renard. They talk us through their emotions before the big game and what it was like to go back to Gabon, so close to where the KKXI perished. The day before the final, Renard took his team to the beach next to where the plane crashed in 1993, as a way of paying respect and trying to inspire his team to fulfill the KKXI’s legacy.

Zambia faced Ivory Coast in the final, arguably the greatest ever African team, with the likes of Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure in their ranks. It was an enormous task for Zambia’s underdogs, but they had a chance to make history and complete one of the greatest ever shocks in international football.

We recreate the drama as the match unfolds – both inside the stadium in Gabon and back in Zambia. After an extraordinary, action-packed game, some of the key characters from the series reflect on the story as a whole and what it meant for the team to return to Gabon. Robert Earnshaw chats with his mum Rita to understand what this incredible story means to her and the Zambian people.

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